The dark side of the rainbow and the dangers of misinterpretation

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It as 45 years ago this week that Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” was released. It was a commercial and artistic breakthrough for the band that remained on the Billboard charts for 15 years.

Then, twenty years after its release the Internet latched onto one of the more famous cultural conspiracies in rock music: that playing the album in sync with the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” causes a large number of musical cues, lyrics and the action on screen to match up.

Band members have repeatedly denied the sync-up (“It has nothing to do with “The Wizard of Oz.” It was all based on The Sound of Music,” deadpanned Floyd drummer Nick Mason.) Apart from being a wild coincidence, albeit, with some uncannily appropriate sync-ups such as the “Great Gig in the Sky” sequence, the phenomenon is also indicative of a troubling cultural development.

The generation that grew up with “The Dark Side of the Moon” previously experienced one of the other more famous rock conspiracy theories in 1970: that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced and musical and visual clues to the incident were scattered throughout Beatles records. Then as the 1970’s progressed the idea of “backmasking” in heavy metal music became infamous, the practice of recording vocals or sounds in reverse so that when played forward they reveal a supposedly Satanic or morally subversive message.

Those conspiracies grew organically around the same time the music was released, not to mention that all the clues one needed were within the record in their hands. Listeners could study McCartney’s bare feet on the “Abbey Road” album cover or wreck their record player needle figuring out Robert Plant’s Satanic mission statement in “Stairway to Heaven.”

No such development occurred with the “Wizard of Oz” sync-up. When “Dark Side” was released, a re-watchable copy of the film was not readily available. The home video boom was not for a few years yet. It was only 20 years after the fact when the emerging information boom of the Web drew these two random pieces of media together.

As harmless as the theoretical sync-up is, in retrospect it feels arbitrary and it also brings up an important point. Why is it that Baby Boomer music is being constantly mined for hidden meanings by that same generation?

It’s no coincidence that the people who grew up listening to “The Dark Side of the Moon” for the first time are now senators. The same age group who sought hidden meaning in the lyrics of “The White Album” in the 1960’s unearthed and condemned Satanic messages in Led Zeppelin’s music, before interpreting the meaning of gun violence in the 1990’s through to today with Marilyn Manson and video games.

Distorted meanings can cause danger to the artist, letting the audience seize power and define an artist’s career from that point on. An artist like Bob Dylan very nearly missed that bullet in 1966. With simple, brilliant, unambiguous lyrics, the meaning of “Dark Side’s” is clear; why should Dorothy Gale and Baby Boomers mess that up now?

 

 

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